There was value in sandalwood

Daily Post has had occasion recently to refer to the trade in sandalwood in the South Pacific.

The natives of Rotuma of northern Fiji were the first to make known the existence of this sweet smelling wood in many Pacific islands, including Vanuatu’s own Erromango. Erromangans had no knowledge of the value of the incense producing timber, santalum, highly valued by certain Asian religions. It was the first buccaneers arriving on Erromango and paying substantial prices for the wood which led to the martyrdom of John M Williams in 1839 on the southern island.

‘Foreigners’ buying the wood they used as firewood at great price was noted by the Erromangans. In ‘The Conquest of Cannibal Tanna,’ AK Langridge says “fortunes were easily made without care as to the means used, brought to the shores of Erromango the riff-raff of the South Seas.”

At first a piece of hoop iron, four inches long, was the price paid for a load of sandal-wood, equal to filling a ship’s boat, a load worth in China from thirty to fifty pounds. A penny worth of hoop iron could bring profit of fifty pounds.

Sandalwood quickly became a mine of those already rich. Captain Palmer of the HMS Rosario said “the cost of this wood will never be known until the Judgement of the Great Day. AK Langridge says ‘the record of the trade to China is one of the blackest cases against whitemen in the annals of the world, and “the wonder of it is that so few white men (like John Williams) were killed, in comparison with the number of natives whom those early traders caused to be put to death in their rapacious greed for gain.”

Langridge continued, as the London Missionary Society was starting its activities based on his writings and those of Captain Cook. “It is immediately to the honour of the London Missionary Society that almost immediately the news of Williams’ martyrdom reached England, efforts were inaugurated to send out Missionaries to take his place.” Missionaries Turner and Nesbitt and their young wives were dispatched as quickly as possible on Erromango where the people had been stirred by the evil deeds of the traders.”

Missionary efforts soon saw to it that West Tanna had a hospital fitting for the treatment of that island’s inhabitants. And missionary doctors, Langridge recalls, made good use of the drug Neokharvisan in clearing out infestations of skin disease, very common in the west. Roads were improving and villagers, when the Condominium was born, accepted that work on the roads was a fitting punishment for offences and the Tanna Shipping Company was formed to reduce the differences between east and west as the Scriptures were being translated. Medical missionaries saw to the departure of polygamy as one of their achievements. Most importantly, recruiting for plantations in nearby countries was being put down.

Indeed there was a value in sandalwood, and the harmful effects it had on Tanna development. It just took a long time to be found. Dr Felix Speiser observed “the health of the people improved. They became interested in their villages and vied with each other in keeping their houses neat and clean. Old vendettas were seen as something of the past, and new hope was infused into the people. The birth rate increased, and now the people are sufficiently strong both morally and physically to live out their lives.”

Old war chiefs, now missionaries, like Lomai, were bringing a new life to the people.

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